No Easy Answers

November 01, 2001 3 min read
Teaching in times of terrorism.

As Lisa Jacobson, a social studies teacher in Morton Grove, Illinois, began her first period class on September 11, a 7th grader rushed into the room, blurting out: “It’s World War III. They just bombed a building in New York.” The boy is prone to telling tall tales, Jacobson says, so his classmates dismissed his report. But within minutes, the school’s principal confirmed the essence of his story.

Students at Jacobson’s school, Golf Middle School, were called to an assembly so the principal could explain what was happening in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in western Pennsylvania, where planes hijacked by terrorists had crashed. After she returned to her classroom, Jacobson turned on the radio and encouraged students to search for news on the Internet. Later that week, she asked her class to write about the events, comparing them with other attacks against the United States or predicting how they would change their lives. While Jacobson’s ability to be flexible allowed her to find teachable moments in the tragedy, she couldn’t help noticing that textbooks, carefully planned activities, and classroom experience all seemed inadequate for dealing with events of such immediacy and magnitude. Because of technology such as the Internet, handheld computers, and cell phones, she and her students were co- witnesses to history. “They’re either one step ahead of me, or I’m one step ahead of them,” Jacobson says of her students. “It makes me more a facilitator than a teacher.” Reactions from classrooms around the country to the events of September 11 are a profound illustration of how teachers, in many ways, have become moderators rather than dispensers of knowledge in an age in which instant access to information has put so much learning directly into the hands of students. Many teachers say the still-unfolding events make clear that the content of the curriculum and how it is taught cannot be stationary.

When John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963, many teachers first heard about it over their schools’ PA systems, but few discussed the shooting or the impact it would have on students’ lives. “Everybody sleepwalked through the rest of the day,” says Steven Goldberg, 50, now a philosophy and history teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Illinois. But as soon as Goldberg heard about the recent attacks, he wheeled a television into his classroom and told kids what he knew. Since September, he’s integrated discussions of the incidents into his lessons. “I’m not trying to address this systematically at the moment,” he says, “but I am looking for unforced opportunities.”

Updated textbooks may help American teachers—many of whom are unfamiliar with Islam and the Middle East—put the terrorist attacks in context for their students.

In the meantime, textbook companies are scrambling to produce materials to help teachers address the situation. The McGraw-Hill Companies, for example, are incorporating information about the terrorist acts and their implications into their textbooks, despite quickly approaching publication deadlines. Writers are being asked to retool sections on government, economics, citizenship, and the 21st century, all of which also will be reviewed by a child psychologist, explains Roger Rogalin, president of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill. “It will not be easy, but we will hold the presses and get the update in there,” says Rogalin, adding that the last time revisions were made so close to deadlines was in 1980, when Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington state. And the process of rewriting textbooks and curricula will most likely produce a renewed debate over history and social studies instruction. “We have had history written by a generation of scholars angry about the war in Vietnam and America’s role in the world,” argues Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University. Now, she says, there will be a serious reconsideration of that approach.

Updated textbooks may help American teachers—many of whom are unfamiliar with Islam and the Middle East—put the terrorist attacks in context for their students. But few believe they can bring back the days when educators were regarded as fonts of knowledge. “In the past, when you talked about something with students, they would accept it,” says James Long, a government teacher at Oliver Wendell Holmes High School in San Antonio. “Now, there’s more questioning because they have more information about things than we do.”

—David J. Hoff and Kathleen Kennedy Manzo